There was no personal competition in the 1960s quite like Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain. While Russell’s Celtics won nine titles throughout the decade, Chamberlain was the first team to snap the streak in 1967. Old heads sometimes criticize today’s NBA players for their friendships, but Wilt and Russell were close friends off the court as well as strong rivals on it.
Chamberlain and Russell fought in the NBA when it was considerably smaller, and they met a total of 94 times in the regular season between Wilt’s debut year in 1959–60 and Russell’s last season in 1968–69. They added another 49 matches in the playoffs. The superstars met eight times in the playoffs over the course of those ten seasons. Russell had a significant edge, as Boston won seven of the eight series.
The rivalry between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain represented a clash of playing styles.
Wilt Chamberlain earned a reputation as a brilliant player who, for better or worse, placed numbers ahead of victories. Bill Russell, on the other hand, embodied the ideal team player, putting personal ambitions aside in pursuit of greater glory.
Wilt started his career with six consecutive scoring championships, and his 30.1 points per game average was the highest in NBA history when he retired. His 22.9 rebounds per game average is almost certainly unbreakable.
Russell was a five-time rebounding champion and ranks second all-time behind Chamberlain with an average of 22.5 boards per game. He did, however, have the rings. Chamberlain had the women on his side. It wasn’t fair to Chamberlain, but the story of the day demanded it.
Many fans were unaware of the strong connection the two NBA titans had since most NBA (and all sports) coverage at the time was in newspapers.
Russell pays us a visit over the holidays.
Wilt Chamberlain (R) and Bill Russell (R) were fierce rivals on the court and good friends off it. | Getty Images/Bettmann Archive
In the 1960s, the NBA was seldom seen on television. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were to be highlighted by the network. Wilt vs. Russell was the preferred scenario. Normally, the two would be paired during the holidays.
Chamberlain remembered entertaining Russell at his home on Thanksgiving Day, the day before the teams’ game, one year. The buddies had a dinner together, spent an evening together at home, and then went to war.
According to a joint interview with Russell conducted by Bob Costas in 1997, Wilt’s recollections of the vacation are bittersweet.
“Bill would come to my home on Thanksgiving night because we had a game the following night between Philadelphia and Boston. He’d sleep in my bed, steal some food, and then go out there and beat my butt.”
That was often the case. The Celtics were 57–37 in Russell-Chamberlain matchups during the regular season. The final score was 29–20, although Boston had a 9–1 advantage in series wins.
Both athletes were legends in their respective sports. Russell, however, is higher up in the game’s hierarchy due to his fixation with rings.
The Lord of the Rings is Bill Russell, but Wilt Chamberlain altered his game to win a second championship.
Bill Russell holds the record for most championships won in NBA history with 11. Wilt Chamberlain ended his career with just two awards, despite his many accomplishments.
His second ring, on the other hand, attests to his ability to be exactly what his team need, which is frequently ignored when analyzing Chamberlain’s legacy.
In 1971–72, the game’s leading scorer averaged just 9.3 shots per game with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was almost incomprehensible coming from a guy who had four nights with more than 30 attempts and flirted with 40 (39.5) in 1961–62.
Chamberlain anchored the Lakers’ defense while also cleaning the glass. He led the NBA with 19.2 rebounds per game and was awarded Finals MVP as the Los Angeles Lakers thrashed the New York Knicks in five games at the age of 35.
Russell’s career is ironic in that, despite the fact that the NBA Finals MVP award currently carries his name, he never won it. Though Boston won the championship the first year the trophy was given out, in 1969, it was given to Lakers great Jerry West (still the only player from the losing team to win it).
Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were inseparable in history and fierce rivals for a decade. They formed a lifetime relationship while battling those conflicts, which lasted until Wilt’s tragic death in 1999. It’s an honor to carry on the tradition of competitive guys.
Basketball Reference and Stathead provided the statistics.
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